A lot of us are going into 2021 with some extra grays, a smaller bank account and maybe a teeny-tiny drinking problem. Gotta be the stress of 2020, right? Well, maybe for the latter two. While the idea that stress causes hair to go gray is pretty commonly accepted, there’s not actually much evidence to suggest that it’s true. Instead, you’re probably seeing more gray hairs simply because you’re getting older.
Although the link between gray hair and stress is unproven, it is still possible that the nightmare of this year could be the cause for your changing hair color, so no judgment if you want to use that as your excuse. What we do know about graying is that it happens because our bodies produce less of the melanin that gives our hair its pigment. This is why the process of graying is usually gradual — once we entirely run out of that pigment, our hair will be more white than it is gray.
As with most aspects of aging, genetics plays a significant role in how we experience it. Some people are genetically predisposed to their melanin supply slowing in their 20s, while others don’t experience it for another three decades. Odds are, you’ll go gray around the same age your parents did.
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However, stress does indeed speed up aging in other parts of the body, and research from February from the National Institutes of Health found that stress involving “mild, short-term pain, psychological stress and restricted movement” damaged and decreased melanin-producing cells in mice.
Unfortunately, you are not a mouse. Instead, you’re probably just someone who has had a lot more time this year to count your grays in your bathroom mirror. If there were a concrete link between stress and gray hair in humans, we’d likely be experiencing it somewhat collectively. Yet, Google Trends shows that searches pertaining to going gray are just about the same now as they have been every year for the last five years. The number of people freaking out about their hair has remained pretty steady.
So, the good news is that quarantine isn’t going to make you go gray faster. The bad news is that if you are going gray, it’s just because your cells are resigning as part of your creep toward the grave. Get over it, old man!